If you ask just about anyone to list the contents of their carryall, you’re apt to find something decidedly more old-fashioned than requisite BlackBerrys and iPods: the pen. More than 100 billion disposable pens have been produced, used and subsequently discarded since 1950, leaving behind a mind-boggling amount of toxic detritus. But DBA, a Manhattan design firm founded by RISD graduates Erik Wysocan and Leon Ransmeier, may have found an ingenious solution.
Composed of pronounceable ingredients (including potatoes) and made in a wind-powered U.S. facility, DBA’s 98 Pen is sleek yet simple, and even 98% biodegradable. “One of the best things about pens is what can be achieved in using them,” Ransmeier explains of the firm’s initial foray into ecologically sound design. “They’re also creative tools.” To wit, DBA marked the launch of its 98 Pen in an artistically unorthodox fashion by lining the walls of the High Line Room at New York’s Standard Hotel with a series of doodles, poems and short stories composed on another company product, the Endless Notebook. Salman Rushdie, Dan Colen, André Balazs, Grace Coddington and Isabel and Ruben Toledo all made their mark as part of DBA’s online auction to benefit clean water charity Riverkeeper.
Beyond paper and pens (a blue ballpoint is also reportedly in the works), DBA is in the process of creating dish racks, extension cords, humidifiers and heaters. Prototypes of the latter two are currently featured in the Cooper-Hewitt’s latest Triennial exhibition, Why Design Now?, which showcases contemporary designer responses to global issues like energy consumption, mobility and health. DBA’s humidifier and heater—streamlined, energy efficient and made of recyclable materials—”are a representation of how ecologically sensitive design principles can be built into beautiful products fundamentally, rather than as reactive compromise,” Ransmeier says.
In addition to accruing the requisite capital to implement production—the 98 Pen cost between one and two million dollars to develop—firms like DBA must also seek out American companies able to adhere to their necessarily exacting standards. “The most challenging part of producing the pen has been working with industry to incorporate new materials and processes into their standard operations,” Ransmeier explains.
The 98 Pen’s simple surface construction belies an inherently complex capillary system: its design entailed meeting cosmetic regulations for non-toxicity and creating an ink comprised of FDA-approved food safe dyes. Despite obstacles both ecological and logistical, Ransmeier remains optimistic. “We’ve been really lucky to develop very high quality relationships with our partners. It’s an investment and a risk for all involved,” he concedes, “but the potential is huge.”
DBA’s 98 Pen ($8 for three) and Endless Notebook ($7) are available at dba-co.com and The Shop at Cooper-Hewitt.